Saturday, 24 June 2017

Three days in Porto

What’s the ideal amount of time to visit a city? To hit the highlights, see enough that you you’ve got a good feel for it, but not so long that you’re scrabbling around for things to do? I’m not talking here about that ‘You can never know a place too well’ thing, but more that when you come away, you feel you could tell someone else what not to miss and have had experiences you wouldn’t have had anywhere else.

I think it’s somewhere around three days. Of course, you can ‘do’ a place in a weekend too, but another day on top of that allows a little bit of wiggle room.

And so to Porto… Like Lisbon and San Fransisco, it’s all hills. You’re either going up or you’re going down. While going down might sound easier, in the back of your mind, you know it only means that soon you’ll be going up again. And, like much of life, the devil is in the detail here. So, while the broad sweeps are glorious, the azulo tiles round doorways or covering whole buildings are incredible, as are the bas reliefs on 1930s theatres or the small curiosities on a table top.

Casa de Chá da Boa Nova terrace
View from the terrace
We stayed in the Teatro Hotel, so named because it’s in the small theatre district. While it does have a great location, being just off the main Avenida dos Aliados and walking distance to the Ribeiro district by the river, cafés, restaurants and plenty of beautiful cathedrals, it was the lowest-lit place I’ve ever stayed. I think it was a design feature. Not to judge – just putting it out there.

An amusing amuse bouche
If you have time and money, book dinner at Casa de Chá da Boa Nova. It’s out along the coast, so a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Porto, but in the most incredible position right on the rocks edging the ferocious Atlantic. A sundowner (try one of the house cocktails) served with amuse bouche on the west-facing terrace is a must-do. Dinner is a choice of one of the eight-course menus (€125) – I had the Atlantic, which is seafood from start to finish, served with molecular detail so that every plate is a work of art and makes use of just about every sea creature, from oysters to tuna to mackerel to squid to sea urchin to… I’ve forgotten them all, but by the pre-dessert it felt as if we tasted just about everything that lives under water. We went with the wine pairing (€85), which is worth it if only for the theatre of the sommelier and his amazing moustaches, explaining each bottle to us. Though it all tasted delicious and everything comes from Portugal. Someone tell me why it's so hard to find wine from this region outside of the country, please? 

Jacaranda (my fav trees)
Everywhere is uphill
Even if high, fine dining isn’t your thing, just sitting in the Pritzker Prize-winning Álvaro Siza Vieira designed building is an experience. For those who don't know, the Pritzker Prize is the world's top award for architecture. Built in the middle of the last century, it’s a study in wood panelling, sweeping concrete and vast picture windows that will put you in mind of Eames chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright.

What else must you do? Walk down to the Ribeiro area by the river and stop in at the train station on the way to admire the blue and white tiles, which will have you staring at the ceiling, marvelling that people once put the effort into making the everyday beautiful. 
Train station
The Ribeiro is both slum and chi-chi boutique district. Laundry is strung between windows that have million-dollar views over the Douro. Tavernas line the harbour, music plays – often live – sightseeing boats vie for your passage to give you the one-hour cruise of the six city bridges, seagulls caw and a market selling tourist tat – think tableclothes, tile trivets, t-shirts and cork fashioned into handbags, purses, wallets and bracelets – lines the waterfront. Of course you’ll come here and then you’ll probably take the funicular up to the start of the train bridge at the northern end, which has an exciting take on safety: there’s nothing between the steady stream of pedestrians and the occasional speeding metro except fear, but somehow it works. 

We also saw a sun dog while we were there: a circle round the sun caused by ice particles reflecting the light in very high clouds. Quite astonishing.

Sun dog
Once on the other side, you'll want to visit one of the port cellars that line the riverfront here. They'll give you a tour of their behind-the-scenes museum, a tasting and then lead you to their shop. You can also simply sit in one of their bars in the welcome cool and enjoy a glass of the local bevvy. If you just need a toilet, head to Sandeman's. It's clean and you can nip in without having to traverse the bar – it's on the left-hand side when you go in.

View from the Yeatman
While you're on this side of the Douro, do visit the Michelin-starred Yeatman Hotel for a drink with the best view in Porto. It's a climb up (or call an Uber if you really can't face it), but worth it to sit in comfortable luxury and be served by gracious waitresses and a doorman who treats you like you own the place. Oh, and the view. 

It may be a bit of a cliche, but the hop-on-hop-off busses get my vote. We went with the Yellow Bus Tour, which included a port tasting and an hour boat tour of the bridges, which was fun. It gives you an overview of the city, you can use it as transportation to all the sights and it offers a welcome respite if you just want to sit for a bit. We took one out to the city's nearest beach at Matosinhos, a one-time fish-canning factory area. While it's not the most beautiful architecturally, the beach is wide, sandy and there's a great promenade that runs alongside for walking and people-watching.

Final must-do thing: a riverboat trip on the Douro. For a one-day trip, this involves a two-hour train ride, either before or after your boat trip up or down the Douro. That's because they all start or finish in Regua, just over 100km upriver from Porto. We went for the train ride first, which feels like the right way round, and travelled with Rota do Douro, They start early in the morning, but it's worth getting up for. The train ride is scenic (and air-conditioned), the boat back was utterly charming. A nice, family-style lunch is served, the bar is open all the way, you go through two dramatic locks and there's both inside (again with air con) and outside seating, all for €60. A real treat. And the perfect way to round off a short break to this river-based city.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Hampton Manor, near Solihull, England

What's better than a fairytale-like manor house on a beautiful spring day in England? Actually getting to stay the weekend in it, during which you'll discover the beds are soft as clouds, that every modern convenience has been discreetly installed and that they all operate at 21st-century levels (I'm talking fast wi-fi, endless hot water, double glazing, flatscreen TVs, etc) without so much as detracting a millimetre from the charm and ambience of the house.

What's more, the restaurant holds an entirely unsurprising Michelin star (this is the sort of place where starters include cauliflower with local Berkswell cheese and truffle shavings with a cauliflower consommé poured over; monkfish served with cubes of kohlrabi, coriander and samphire, followed by a pre-dessert, a dessert and then petits fours. And no, you won't have room for them all...) and where the staff have been awarded the very first Michelin star based on service alone. Again, not really a shock, since everyone who works here seems to have been hired for their easy, friendly manner and detailed knowledge of the food and history of the estate.

In short, Hampton Manor is the sort of place where you quickly start behaving as if you're the favourite grandchild of the family who own the place. That is to say, you'll be relaxed, very comfortable and maybe just a tiny bit smug. Why, yes, of course you're going in the library to drink a glass of the English fizz Nyetimber that's giving the French something to fret about. Now? Why, you're going for a wander around the grounds, because you want to gaze at the ponies in the field, look for the walled garden and see how many of the flowering shrubs you can name.

You might also cheekily think up faux personalities you could take on, if you were to crash the wedding that's taking place here in the afternoon, but know you'll end up visiting local town Knowle to check out the local producers instead and then probably head into Birmingham to find out why everyone says you should experience city-centre Brindleyplace, from where you'll probably take one of the canal cruises and learn the history of the area from the commentary.

All before returning to this magical corner of some green and pleasant land.

Hampton Manor

Friday, 17 March 2017

Muscat, Oman

"You see that?" our guide said, indicating a parking lot. "That's the women's driving school. You know why they have to practise there? Because when women see another car, they go, 'Whooo!'" At which he did jazz hands above his head.

Um, no. Even when I was an utter beginner driver – back when I used to 'borrow' one of my dad's cars to drive down and then reverse up the 1/4-mile driveway with, or confidently told drunk friends that they'd had too much to drink so they better let me drive, neglecting to mention I didn't actually have a license yet – did I ever throw my hands up in the air and shout, "Whoo!" in fright if I saw another car.

But this is the Middle East, where 'jokes' in which women are depicted as the slightly dumber, silly sex are apparently still acceptable. Consider this: the universal right for all women to vote didn't arrive in Oman until 2003. Shocking? Switzerland didn't give women the vote until 1971. We're not talking ancient history, are we?

Still, I liked Oman. A lot. It felt safe, it looks amazing, with its intensely forbidding, dry, mountainous coast. It's also oddly broken up, so the main bit is on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula and then it has two exclaves, a word I'd never heard before, further north. These are areas completely surrounded by UAE land, but still part of Oman. The best explanation I was given was that the tribes who lived in these regions felt an affinity to Oman so they chose which country they belonged to. I can't go further into the whole partitioning of the Ottoman Empire without showing my embarrassing level of ignorance on the subject, so I'll stop here.

We visited the capital, Muscat, which has a population of less than 30,000; is where the Sultan has his palace, and is the home of the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is visitor friendly and where you need to dress discreetly and cover your hair. By which I mean, if you're a woman. Men do not have to cover their hair, though they are expected to cover their arms and legs, and dress respectably.

I didn't mind. At any event, it's a moot point: if you're a visitor in another country and go to their place of worship, you abide by the rules or you don't go.

Oman must be the frankincense capital of the world – the whole of Muscat's souq was aromatic with it – which I liked. I picked up a large bag of the stuff, wondering if it would be pricey: 1 rial, which is about £2.

When our guide said we'd be visiting a museum, I admit to a bit of heartsink (#boring). Bait Adam was anything but. Bait, as the owner told us, means 'house of', so this was Adam's House. Adam was the owner's son and inside was a collection of... well, things. There were many framed newspaper cuttings and old photographs, plenty of glass cases with bits of this and that in them, and the whole didn't take long to go round. At the end, you were offered a cup of local coffee, which is something between coffee as you may know it and tea, and could browse the gift shop. Really, not much like any museum I'd ever visited before and I would recommend it for the owner's little introduction alone. To find it, best google as it hasn't a website.

In the end, it was this friendliness of the people that stood out: the server in a dried-fruit store was patience itself as we dithered over the different flavours; a couple of men were concerned about us getting the right bus and helpfully found us a taxi when we realised we'd missed ours. I'd love to come back and get to know it better.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Doha, Qatar, on an Arabian Gulf cruise

“These are your camels?” I asked the man in the brown thoub, who was standing near, smiling at us as we petted one of the beautiful animals.

“Oh, no,” he said, shocked at the suggestion. “They are for parliament.”

There were 26 of them, munching hay in little groups within the corral. None of the camel caretakers seemed to mind when we wandered in and began taking pictures, patting and feeding them tufts of hay. There were maybe six men, one watering the verge-side grass, a couple perched on the fencing, our man in among the camels and a couple more carrying out odd jobs.

It was the same 20 minutes later when we happened upon the stables of eight grey Arabian horses, kept in immaculate conditions, with clean bedding in their vast stalls, a couple of them tacked up in ornately decorated gear, with State of Qatar on their red saddle rugs and cowry shells sewn in wherever possible. No one minded in the least that we went in and petted and stroked their fine heads, took photographs, and oohed and ahhed over their handsomeness.

Animal encounter number three was seeing the birds for sale in the falcon souq. I’d imagined this was going to be lone men with maybe one or two birds on stands around a square, who might demonstrate their bird’s training in little flights. Instead, it was shops with double-height interiors, with birds – anything from three or four to up to 10 – sitting on perches, most with burqas on their heads, covering their eyes, but occasionally a lone one without and, in one shop, none of the birds were wearing them.

“Are they trained?” I asked a shopkeeper.

“Yes, all trained.”

“How much are they?” asked my companion.

“This one,” the shopkeeper indicated the nearest bird, “Is 5,000 rial. That one, 17,000.” So, take from that they start at about £4,000-£5,000 and go up from there. As it was nearly my birthday, I suggested to my companion that an Arabian horse and a falcon would do nicely…

We were four, wandering around Doha, checking out the sights, like the Al Koot Fort in the main square, which you can’t go into and which, being entirely white, is well camouflaged against a background of more modern white buildings, but very cool when the eye picks it out at last; and the Wadif Souq which, like all the best, is a labyrinth of narrow, covered alleyways selling pashminas by the stackload; handmade saddles and other tack and leather goods, bags, holsters, swords, gold jewellery in shops that resemble small Aladdin’s caves, so full of glitter are they; along with traditional clothes, sandals and ladies with their hotplates making flatbread out in front.

At 5pm we made our way to where a small, white coach pulled up and got on. Our ship was sailing at 6pm and everyone had to be back on board by 5.30, when the gangplank would be pulled up, no exceptions.

“Can we wait five minutes?” said a harassed-looking woman. “We left our luggage in a car.”

What this luggage was (if she was on the cruise with us, what was she doing totting luggage around during a day out?) and why it was in a car (a car? Really? Whose? How could you forget something like that?), we never found out, but we spent increasingly anxious minutes waiting.

‘What happens if you miss the boat?’ I asked a companion who’d been on a cruise before.

‘You have to fly to the next destination. At your cost.’

Oh. Hmmm. Fancy making a coach load of people miss the boat? Not something I’d want on my conscience. Fortunately, eventually, we pulled away as the guide told her he’d left a message for the car to go straight to the dock.

Ten minutes later, as we ran for the boat, I could hear my name being mispronounced over a tannoy. Oh my! Bang, bang, bang, up the gangplank and… we were on. Phew.

Who says cruising is for sissies?

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, with Host Unusual

Back in January, I had the opportunity to review a property operated through a new holiday accommodation website called Host Unusual. It's a pretty cool concept: rather than your usual country cottages – which are perfectly fine, of course – this site is all about quirky, different, interesting, or to borrow their word, unusual properties that you can hire for your break. There's everything from windmills to lighthouses to castles to follies, boats, planes, buses, hobbit-style homes, eco domes, caravans... Well, you get the idea and it's fun just to take a look around at what's on offer.
As I only had a weekend, which meant I rather wanted to arrive on the Friday evening so there'd be all of Saturday to be there, we went for a quirky, retro apartment by the sea a mere two hours from London in Westgate-on-Sea, which is just along from the more hyped Margate on the Kent coast.
Westgate has clearly been overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, but this means it's hung on to its old-school charm without shouting about it. The downtown area – really just two streets – have lovely Victorian glass-covered awnings over the pavements; the Carlton family-run vintage cinema, where you can see first-run films for the princely sum of just £3.50 on a Saturday night (£2.50 if you go midweek) – compare that to the usual London price of £14 per ticket and you'll see why I'm flagging this up – and the usual British take-aways: Chinese, Indian and fish and chips.

We stayed in The Lookout, a 'quirky' (Host Unusual's word) flat that has been decorated in the colours, style and even some authentic pieces from the 1950s and 60s. Think aquamarine, pink, brown and olive for the colour palette, with 21st century touches like wifi, a DVD player and reliable heating and hot water. It's best to know it's on the top floor of a terraced house, so a couple of flights up (tip: don't overload yourself with too much luggage), but once you're in there is a lovely view out the back windows over the garden to the sea. 

The flat sleeps four: two on a pull-out sofa bed in the living room, two in the bedroom, where the beds can be configured as two singles or a big king. There's a big bathroom with shower over the bath, well-equipped kitchen and dining alcove. Nice as it is, you're unlikely to spend too much time indoors though, because that wonderful seafront will be calling...

Where the road meets the 13-mile long promenade is Pav's café, which doesn't look as if it's changed so much as a tablecloth since the 1960s. There are some wonderful signs (check out the ice-cream cone clock with the motto 'You can't buy happiness but you can buy ice cream') but otherwise a jolly disregard for what you might call decor. Order a full English (veggie option available) or just a sausage in a roll and a builder's tea and you're ready for the day.

The beach in these parts is either wonderfully wide and sandy or nonexistent if the tide is in. We were lucky with the weather, especially as it was January. Full blazing sun that was even warming and a perfect two-mile walk to Margate, admiring the low white cliffs that accompanied us most of the way, the many dogs being taken for walks and the ever-changing seascape.

Unfortunately for us, Dreamland, the recently rejuvenated but also retro amusement park, was closed for the winter, but the Turner Contemporary gallery was open and had a temporary exhibit on with the theme of string. At least, I think it was string. We managed to arrive just as the director, Victoria Pomery, OBE, was giving some sort of opening speech, but I'm afraid we didn't pay any attention and just wandered upstairs. It's free and is a nice open space with drop-in family activities going on, so a good one if you've kids in tow. Or, of course, like art.

Next door is the pretty white stucco tourist office and further out along the harbour arm are cafés, shops and, at the tip, the statuesque shell lady.

Back in town, everyone seems to be making the most of the retro English seaside vibe, with plenty of shops selling what look like the contents of local attics and cellars (old badges, tea services, chests, rocking horses, carriage clocks...). There are also a couple of indoor spaces that have been turned into shopping arcades. One has a double-decker bus inside, in which you can take tea or sandwiches on the upper deck, and where we saw a corner booth with the words 'Tracey Emin exclusive' on a card at the back of a table strewn with various personal effects. My first thought was that the table was one of the artist's pieces, in the same vein as her 'Unmade Bed'. But when the sales lady saw me taking a picture, she apologised and cleared her things away. Just going to prove I'm never going to get that YBA stuff...

Of course, we had to eat at GB Pizza, which has been reviewed and praised by everyone from Jay Raynor to Zoe Williams, and if you want to try 'the best pizzas' she's ever tasted, I recommend making a booking as it's that popular. Personally, it's OK, but as far as I'm concerned, nothing's ever going to knock a slice of New York pizza off its perch.

As you're here, you should visit the Tudor House, which is staffed by enthusiastic history buffs happy to share their knowledge, and the Shell Grotto, which also has a gift shop and café, along with a jolly shell-covered dinosaur head to admire. 

By then, you'll probably be ready to head back to The Lookout. Meander along inland and buy dinner supplies on the walk back, then take yourselves to the Carlton for your Saturday night at the pictures. By Sunday, you'll feel you've had a proper seaside break, even if it wasn't warm enough for sunbathing. Never mind, you can always come back in summer and have a totally beachy time of it.
St Mildred's Bay, Westgate-on-Sea, Kent